Opinion: not all pensioners should get the Winter Fuel Payment

Our writer says the Winter Fuel Payment should only be paid to people who really need the help.

I don’t think my mum should get extra money from the Government this winter. And that’s not personal; I like my mum. I simply don’t think any reasonably well-off pensioners should get the Winter Fuel Payment this winter or ever.

Sorry Mum, I do realise there’s a good chance you’re going to read this, but I suspect you will agree with me if you think about it.

You see, each year, the Government passes a payment of between £100 and £300 to every person who is old enough to claim the state pension (excepting those who are in hospital long-term, living in a care home or in prison).

This money is an excellent idea; I have absolutely no problem with people receiving a tax-free allowance that helps towards their heating bills.

The notion that some elderly people might be risking their health by rationing their heating is horrendous.

I particularly like the trust element of simply giving recipients cash so they can spend it on energy bills or blankets or extra food or even transport to visit friends for the colder weeks.

Rather than something prescriptive like vouchers, we simply trust that people know what to spend the money on.

Each year the UK records 25,000 or more excess winter deaths, primarily among the elderly. We need the Winter Fuel Payment. No arguments.

However, I don’t believe that the very well off need it. I mean, they obviously don’t. And you don’t need to take my word for it, you can listen to Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant.

Because he is worth £100 million and yet the state is sending him the winter fuel payment each year. Which ought to be leaving you Dazed and Confused.

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‘I’ve been sent £300 by the Government, why?’

During a debate in the House of Lords, Baroness Bakewell revealed that she had been stopped in the street by the rock star Robert Plant who wanted to know why on earth he had been sent the allowance.

The Baroness told her fellow peers: “I was stopped in the street by Robert Plant, a multi-millionaire rock star, of Led Zeppelin.

“He said: ‘Joan, I’ve been sent £300 by the Government. Why?’.

“Why indeed? The heating allowance for older people should be means tested. When I first received it, I tried to send it back but I was told it could not be accepted.”

I agree with Joan. It is ludicrous to send wealthy pensioners cash each winter. It’s frankly ludicrous to send even comfortably well-off pensioners this kickback; if they don’t actually need it to stay safely warm then there’s no justification.

And means-testing that payment would free up money that could be better spent. It could go a little way towards fixing our social care problems, for example. It could even go to help the very poorest pensioners.

Mainstream politics

If you think this isn’t a very mainstream view then remember that it was included in the last Conservative manifesto.

Admittedly, that was a manifesto that cost the Tories their majority and plunged the country into even greater political upheaval, but it was mainstream political opinion.

Theresa May, perhaps too confident that she couldn’t help but win, announced plans to cut the payment from up to 10m people.

Now, I actually think that the Conservative plans went too far, and they were quickly scrapped once the hostility to them became so apparent. The Daily Mirror quoted a Conservative source as saying: “Most people are going to lose their Winter Fuel Payment.”

I don’t want that.

But I do want anyone who can afford to heat their home adequately and without considering it to not get a free handout each year.

Now, I know you are probably already yelling arguments at your computer monitor, so here is my response to the three main points I expect you want to make.

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‘Means-testing will cost more than it saves’

This is a relatively common claim but it could potentially be restricted to those pensioners already receiving Pension Credits.

More than 12 million pensioners claimed the cash winter fuel payment of between £100 and £300 last year, costing the taxpayer £2 billion. Say half of those didn’t need it, that could save a full billion pounds a year.

And Pension Credit is means tested already so there would be relatively little additional work to do, we could target it at the poorest.

Of course, at the moment Pension Credit is chronically under-claimed. The organisation Age UK estimates that £3.4bn of both Pension Credit and Housing Benefit was unclaimed by pensioners in 2014/15. Work would need to be done to ensure greater take-up of benefits among those who really need them.

With the extra money freed up by means-testing the Winter Fuel Allowance we could put more money into supporting the poorest pensioners to ensure they get what they are entitled to.

The money could be used to ensure the most vulnerable get a greater benefit, rather than supporting everyone to get something – including millionaire rock stars (and my mum).

‘They could just cancel it’

Technically, older people who do not want to receive the allowance can cancel it. However, Lord Sugar has complained that he once spent an hour on the phone to a civil servant and didn’t manage to stop the payment so now he donates the cash.

Figures released under Freedom of Information laws and reported by The Telegraph show that just 54 pensioners managed to turn down the payment in 2015/16.

But that’s not the point. I don’t think we should be making payments to people like Lord Sugar or even relatively comfortable pensioners like my mum (sorry to keep mentioning you, Mum).

Hoping they hand them back if they recognise they don’t need them isn’t a suitable basis for a tax regime.

‘We’ve paid in all our lives and we deserve it’

Okay, I actually complain about the winter fuel allowance being paid to wealth pensioners quite often.

And very often I get told – usually by recipients of the allowance – that they have paid into the system all their lives and deserve perks like their winter fuel allowance.

But it’s really important to look at what it is. It’s not a ‘you paid into the system your entire life so here’s £300 for you to spend on Christmas presents’ payment. It’s a payment designed to ensure all older people can heat their homes adequately.

It is ludicrous that people who don’t need it receive it like some sort of bonus. It’s not a bonus, it’s supposed to keep vulnerable people safe in the cold.

What do you think? Should rock stars, Felicity Hannah’s mum and reasonably well-off pensioners keep getting the Winter Fuel Allowance? Have your say using the comments below.

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